Batman is as iconic as they come and even fans who have never read a comic in their lives know of his back-story, wide range of villains and the ever popular city for which he protects. With such a high symbol of comic pedigree, it is amazing to have never seen a game truly envision what it is like to control Batman, or in any case meet up with the truly psychotic and creative villains. Arkham Asylum changes all those notions, with a setting that fits perfectly in the Batman canon, combat that is intuitive and fun to use and a story that will have all fans, whether diehard or casual, enjoying every minute that you play.
Arkham Asylum begins with Batman delivering Joker back to the prison from whence he escaped. Surprised by Joker's reluctance to "come quietly," Joker soon escapes and wreaks havoc upon the confines of Arkham Asylum. Batman soon chases after the Joker, learning of his plans to amass an army to take over Gotham City using the inmates within Arkham. The story is definitely one of the highlights of the game, and being penned by the writers of the Animated Series nothing gets left out or leaves you wondering what happens. There are plenty of secrets left to find out for yourselves, so we won't engage any more talks about the story, but throughout the lengthy single player campaign Batman will spend a good amount of time saving Arkham Asylum from the clutches of The Joker.
The basis of Batman's repertoire is using gadgets that he acquired through his company at Wayne Enterprises. These gadgets play an integral role throughout the game and can be used to fight, solve puzzles or simply explore the grounds. While Batman has his standard batarang, he will also gain access to other various tools such as the Batclaw, which lets you grapple far away objects very similar to the hookshot from Zelda, Explosive Gel which allows you to place a sticky gel on objects for remote detonation, and the Cryptographic Sequencer that lets you bypass electric fences that would otherwise hinder your progress. Each item is fun to use on its own and the beauty of their uses comes in the fact that they could also be used in battle as well, sometimes flinging batarangs at enemies to stun them or placing explosive gel on various objects to take down enemies from afar.
While most might be satisfied with the wide variety of weapons at your disposal, Batman is also well known for his extensive martial arts training, and the game plays heavily on your ability to tackle foes in hand-to-hand combat. Hitting an enemy is as simple as pressing the strike button, but utilizing counter abilities and combos in battle award you more points which can then be used to upgrade your equipment. As you further progress through the game, groups of ten or more enemies soon feel like cakewalk as you easily breeze through them with simple ease and perfection.
But while unarmed thugs are easily taken care of, armed thugs pose more of a threat since gunfire can easily mow Batman down. Armed thugs must be taken down in a more strategic manner, often using the darkness to swing from the rafters and perform silent takedowns. Using detective mode allows you to scan your surroundings using a combined X-Ray and Heat Sensor vision, allowing you to see through objects and easily locate the enemies. Using this tactic is simplistic in nature but also fun to perform as you will find different ways of taking down all the enemies in the room without any of them knowing. You can hide atop a gargoyle statue and perform an inverted takedown, hide under the vents beneath the floor to perform a ground takedown, or simply sneak up behind an unsuspecting foe to take them down silently at close range. The wide range of choices for each scenario is amazing, and you can always go back to the same room and figure out a different way to successfully complete the mission.
Because the Joker has taken over Arkham Asylum, you will constantly hear him rambling on the system's speakers about either you or his eventful plans. Mark Hamill does a superb job of reprising his role from the Animated Series, and whether he is letting enemies know of your appearance in the same room or laughing at your previous attempts to foil his plans, The Joker always amuses with his satanic laugh and often endearing phrases. Of course The Joker is not the only villain to cross paths with Batman, as there are nearly ten villains you will encounter at some point in the game with various others whom you can find by solving clues scattered around Arkham Island. There are moments however that many bosses you see throughout the game are captured during cutscenes or never even met at all, which leaves you wondering why the developers teased at such appearances anyways. Surely Batman fans will be pleased in simply seeing them at all, but it was a bummer knowing you will never have the means in taking them down yourself.
Arkham Asylum is not simply beating up thugs and stopping The Joker's plans as a familiar villain soon contacts you early on in the game to solve his riddles scattered all over Arkham Island. The Riddler's sneering veneer towards Batman is amusing and he often finds himself trying hard to stump Batman with his cunning intellect. As you progress through the game messages will pop up on screen, in the form of riddles, that when solved award you with experience points and character bios. Some of the riddles talk about famous inmates at Arkham Asylum, and with over 50 famous Batman villains placed inside the prison, there are a lot of riddles to solve and characters to unlock. There are also other secrets to be found as well, such as Insignias of Arkham that tell the story of the Island and interview tapes that play audio of some of the more famous villains in their psychiatric sessions.
Finding these hidden items is as simple as running into them, but using Batman's detective mode makes things a lot easier. Detective Mode not only allows Batman to see enemies in the dark, but it also allows him to locate grappling points, breakable glass, and other interactive objects that could have easily been hidden. Detective mode is perhaps used too much in the game and is probably one of the game's small mishaps. Players will probably tend to keep it on throughout the game (as we did) in order to safely locate enemies up ahead or search for missing objects. In any case, clues found and enemies defeated award you points which can be used to upgrade your suit's armor, give you extra combat abilities and upgrade your gadgets, so it is often in your best interest to search long and hard for those clues, as they not only give you access to character bios and secrets, but points needed to make yourself stronger as well.
After spending a good deal of time in the single player campaign, players can try their hand at combat and predator challenges. In combat challenges players are simply tasked with taking out waves of enemies, earning points for taking no damage and earning combo multipliers. The waves get harder as you progress, with enemies who carry stun batons requiring you to perform specific moves to take them down. In Predator Challenges, players can re-play various scenarios from the story where they are tasked with taking down all the enemies in the fastest time, earning points for specific scenarios. For example, one mode tasked us with taking down one enemy by inverted takedown, two with explosive gel being put on the window, and one by silent takedown. Figuring out the fastest and cleverest way to execute these is always a fun task and with the harder modes forcing you to stay low (as the gargoyles are rigged with explosives seconds after you touch), battling for the top spot on the leaderboards might last for months. One thing that seems like an opportunity wasted is a multiplayer mode, as the game seems naturally fit for the idea. Similar to how Splinter Cell had agents versus mercenaries, one team could comprise of thugs trying to flush out Batman and kill him while the other controls Batman as he tries to take down everyone in the room. A neat idea possibly, but perhaps the developers felt the multiplayer would distract from the single player mode, which is the heart of the game.
Visually, Arkham Asylum is stunning. Each of the locales has its own distinct look and vibe and seems breathing with life. From the Medical Wing to the Botanical Gardens, each part of the massive prison is imbedded with the escaped convicts and villains' own brand of terror. The Joker casually leaves cynical smilie faces all over the walls and even the Scarecrow's stealth level, that has you fighting off his fear gas, is beautifully created in a unique, psychotic sort of way. The sound is perhaps the best aspect of Arkham Asylum as it leads to the overall effect of the game. The voice actors, most notably Mark Hamill as the Joker and Kevin Conroy as Batman, steal the show. Other voice actors for the various other villains are equally as impressive, and even the lowly thugs and guards have their own blend of personality. Plus with music taken from all of the movies (even the terrible Batman and Robin), it is pleasing to defeat an army of thugs to the theme of Batman playing in the background.
With dozens of terrible games behind them, Eidos and developer Rocksteady have given fans a reason to love Batman games again. Without a doubt, Arkham Asylum is one of the best games of 2009, and from the solid single player experience, amazing voice acting, rewarding challenge maps and a slew of nearly dozens of unlockable bios and collectibles, any fan will be hard-pressed to not give this game a try.